I want to begin a series of posts on the topic of idolatry. The fact that idolatry is considered a sin in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity–maybe in some forms of other religions too–raises several interesting questions.
First, I want to point out what monotheism and the rejection of idolatry does not mean, at least in the religion of the Bible. It does not mean intolerance.
A few years ago, in an address at Harvard, Gore Vidal made this remark: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Why? Because, in his view, monotheism is responsible for intolerance and therefore war and strife among nations.
The world has seen it’s share of religious intolerance, hatred, and war. The point I want to make, though, is this kind of intolerance is not based on the teaching of the Bible.
First, in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament–the commandment against idolatry is given to people who have voluntarily entered a covenant relationship with the God of Israel, who is also the universal God of all people. When Israel is unfaithful to the covenant with God, God sends prophets to call them back to faithfulness. These prophetic indictments against unfaithfulness and idolatry are not given to other nations.
When the prophets speak to other nations, they call them to universal standards of justice and human rights. The prophets do not condemn other nations for practicing the wrong religion, but for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The New Testament does portray the mission of the early church with the apostles calling people from all nations to turn from “vain idols to the living god.” They use persuasion, not force to proclaim the good news. The Gentiles who worship their own gods defended the apostles: “These men are not blasphemers of our goddess.”
I am not saying that the Bible teaches tolerance for idols in the sense that serving idols is just as valid as believing in the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. I am saying that it does not encourage violence against those who practice other religions.